Themes and Characters

Herbert maintained that Dune was about the destructive nature of charismatic leaders. In this sense, Paul Atreides is an allegorical figure: a good man whose efforts to survive and help his followers lead to war and chaos. Arrakis has a well-balanced ecological system in which even human society plays a cooperative role. When the Fremen surrender their freedom of choice to their prophet Paul, the natural balance of the planet is upset, and the entire ecosystem comes apart.

Dune has two main characters: Paul Atreides, the son and heir of an exiled noble family, who wins the loyalty of the Fremen of the planet Dune; and the planet itself, a once lushly vegetated world now turned to desert by the giant sandworms that are vital to the production of melange. When Paul takes a drug produced from melange, he is able to see the future. He soon becomes part of the planet’s development from a wretched backwater into the focus of a galactic empire. Known as “The One Who Points the Way,” Paul is the spiritual leader of the fanatical Fremen.

Paul himself is the result of an ancient breeding program run by the mysterious Bene Gesserit women. These women have been trying to breed the Kwisatz Haderach-a powerful being capable of shaping the future-and Paul, with the aid of melange, achieves this powerful role. As such, he becomes a composite personality, with a vast line of ancestors all coming alive in him. One of the many intrigues in Dune involves Paul’s efforts to escape Bene Gesserit control.

Tension is further heightened when Paul becomes trapped by his own past actions and must choose between personal sacrifice and tragedy for his people. This choice becomes the central theme of Dune Messiah, in which he must face his own mortality; the stress of confronting death is often used to reveal the essence of character.

Herbert suggests that once people give up their ability to make individual decisions, disaster follows-no matter how benevolent the leader. The notion that such surrender of will is harmful is a recurring theme in Herbert’s writings. In The Santaroga Barrier, for instance, an entire community takes a drug that eliminates individuality while enhancing its function as a community. Its citizens routinely murder outsiders; they act to protect the community regardless of the consequences, and ultimately they bring destruction upon themselves. The danger inherent in yielding one’s power to act individually runs as a theme throughout Dune and helps unify the entire series.

Dune and its sequels are filled with speculations about human societies and the potential of the human mind. These ideas are elaborately worked out, and much of the novel’s appeal is its ability to transport the reader into an intricately detailed alien society. As the Dune series progresses, characters become pawns in the history of Arrakis; the religious and political intrigues are fascinating, as a variety of characters become involved in the immense fabric of the planet’s development. For example, in one of Dune’s sequels, Paul’s son, Leto, merges with sandworms to become a god-emperor, at one with the planet’s environment.